Though the term is a fairly familiar one within the context of the church and Christianity, few people really understand what spiritual idolatry is, meaning its true nature. In this article we are going to consider the matter of spiritual idolatry and what it is from a Biblical standpoint.
To merely call idolatry "sin," though it certainly is, somehow seems an extreme understatement, for it is the ultimate affront unto God. Yet, arguably, it is the most pervasive sin of all today among professing believers. Contributing to the prevalence of idolatry within Christendom, no doubt, is the common perception by many that idolatry is something that occurs only in underdeveloped, far-away, foreign lands, or that it is something relegated mostly to ancient civilizations of past ages, while nothing could be further from the truth.
In Galatians 5:20, the Apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit listed "idolatry" as one of the fundamental elements of evil comprising the carnal nature, or sin nature, which actually is the nature of the devil himself, and which is also alluded to as the "spirit of disobedience" — the "spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). So, in other words, because the carnal nature is common to every human, idolatry, then, is a basic tendency of every person ever born.
In simplistic terms, idolatry is making something or someone that to which we look to bring happiness, peace, fulfillment, contentment, and all the things only God is supposed to provide us, which in essence is the definition of a false god.
To put it another way, idolatry is fashioning and forming false gods, or idols, out of one's own vain imaginations. Indeed, idols are really always imaginary, existing solely in the human mind and thoughts. Again by inspiration of the Spirit, in another place, Paul states categorically that those possessing true Spiritual knowledge and understanding "know that there is no such thing as an idol (false god), and that there is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4). False gods are false because they really do not exist, except in the mind of the idolater.
Idolatry in actuality then is merely the product of human thinking, manufactured in the factory of the human mind. It is the act of creating an abstract god within the deep, dark void of human reasoning. At bottom, all idolatry is "mind-idolatry," for it is primarily in the mind that all idolatry exists. In a nutshell, the basis of idolatry is what I refer to as "stinkin' thinkin'."
Moreover, the ilk of idolatry which bona fide believers are most guilty of committing even routinely, though unwittingly, is the idolatry of holding to false and contrived ideas about God that in fact are wholly incongruous with what He Himself has revealed in His Word concerning His Divine Nature, Will, and Ways. When it is all distilled down, idolatry is the ultimate form of arrogance and self-righteousness, for it supplants God and His Word, Will, and Way, and puts in His place a false, humanly formed and fashioned god, one made in our own image and after our own likeness, to affirm and hallow our own humanly contrived ideas and concepts. Thus, idolatry, in my view, is the ultimate offense that the human heart can commit against a Holy and Sovereign God.
A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), who was the pastor of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Toronto and Chicago, for a number of years was also editor of the CMA's official organ, Alliance Weekly, as well as a prolific author of books. His spiritual acumen was so highly regarded by his colleagues that many esteemed him a twentieth-century prophet. Despite all his prodigious achievements, he was perhaps best known for his personal intimacy with God, and his book, The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper & Row), was a collection of some of his most outstanding messages related to knowing God in personal intimacy. So profound and insightful are his comments regarding the subject of idolatry, as well as exquisitely and eloquently articulated, that they could scarcely be improved upon, making direct quotation the only fitting means of conveyance. The following are excerpts of his commentary, the chronology of which I have taken the liberty of rearranging in order to better serve our purposes here:
"Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it."
"The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place. 'When they knew God,' wrote Paul, 'they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.'"
"Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is — in itself a monstrous sin — and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness."
"A god begotten in the shadows of a fallen heart will quite naturally be no true likeness of the true God."
"Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true."
"Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it."
All false doctrine is, in essence, an assemblage of "wrong ideas about God" and "perverted notions about God," as Tozer put it. How profound and Scriptural is his statement: "Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous," for "polluted waters" is a metaphor evoked in Scripture to represent false teaching. Indeed, false teaching is by no means, as some seem to believe, a harmless or inconsequential phenomenon, but rather polluted waters can be lethal, both in the natural and the spiritual. False teaching, which in essence is substituting human ideas and sophistry for the absolute Truth of God's Mind, in fact IS idolatry.
Idolatry and false teaching are synonymous terms. Idolatry always has associated with it some form of false teaching, and false teaching is always an ilk of idolatry. As Tozer so brilliantly articulated it: "The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true." In other words, the person engaging in idolatry simply contrives his own doctrine concerning spiritual matters and the composition of "truth," and conducts his life based on those determinations even though they are not congruous with the real Truth which emanates from and is defined by God as Truth in His Word.
Over the course of Church history, change within the Church has been a slow—at times agonizingly slow—process. Despite the great strides the Church has made since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 A.D. in ridding false teaching, more yet remains. And false doctrine is far from being the innocuous matter it is viewed as being by many professing believers today. The 21st Century Church needs to accept the responsibility incumbent upon it to point out and repudiate false doctrine of whatever sort and wherever it may be found, for truly false doctrine inherently is spiritual idolatry of the highest order.
[Original Post Date on Real Truth Digest E-zine: 10/15/99]
[Note: This article is adapted from the book, CHARISMATIC CAPTIVATION, by Steven Lambert. The book exposes the widespread problem of authoritarian abuse in Neo-Pentecostal church-groups, and explains how it became infused into the very fabric, foundation, and functions of the Neo-Pentecostal church arising out of a false movement known as the Discipleship/Shepherding Movement (1970-77). References to "Discipleship" or "Shepherding" (and variables) doctrines, teachings, proponents and participants, and so forth, allude to those pertinences that arose out of that movement.]